How to eat Korean BBQ

By Maangchi

Last week I filmed this video with Leonard Lopate for WNYC in New York City, showing him how to eat BBQ in a Korean restaurant.

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We had a great time filming and the video turned out wonderful, but I have a lot more info to share on the topic! More than would fit in the video, so here’s a detailed guide on how to eat Korean barbecue in a Korean restaurant:

Sitting down to the table

In serious Korean BBQ places, the grill is actually built into the table. Most Koreans think charcoal BBQ tastes best, and in these restaurants there’s a grill pit in the middle of the table where they can put in a bucket of preheated red-hot coals. But many Korean BBQ places use electric or gas grills, too. They are sometimes built into the table, or are separate units that sit on top of the table.

In Korea many restaurants have traditional Korean tables that are close to the floor, and you sit on a thin cushion on the floor while you eat. Traditional Korean ondol heating comes up from the floor, so Korean tables are low, but a lot of Korean restaurants have tables and chairs, too.

When you sit down to order, the server may bring you a damp, hot (or cold) towel to refresh your hands with, while you look at the menu. You’re going to be eating with your hands for this meal!

Ordering meat

Most Korean BBQ restaurants offer both beef and pork on the menu. Some places specialize in one or the other, and you can often tell which by looking at the sign outside. If there’s a picture of a pig on it, they specialize in pork. If there’s a picture of a cow on it, they specialize in beef. Sometimes you’ll see a picture of a duck, too! But usually a  pig or cow.

When it comes time to order there’s usually a choice in quality and between marinated and non-marinated cuts. Generally speaking, beef is more expensive than pork, and non-marinated, top quality steak beef is more expensive than marinated beef.

Types of marinated cuts of beef offered can include bulgogi (thinly sliced sirloin or tenderloin in a soy sauce-based marinade), and soe-galbi (marinated beef short ribs). There are 2 types of soe-galbi served in North America: LA galbi, marinated beef short ribs sliced thinly across the bone, and soe-galbi, a more traditional style of marinated beef short ribs. In traditional soe-galbi the meat is filleted out from the bone in a thin strip, marinated, and then rolled back onto the bone. When it comes time to grill it, they roll the meat out on the grill. After it’s been cooked, it’s cut into small bite-sized pieces.

Types of marinated pork can include dwaejibulgogi (marinated pork) and dwaejigalbi (marinated pork ribs).

Marinated cuts on the menu will sometimes have “yangnyeom” in the name, which means “seasoned” or marinated.

Non-marinated cuts of beef includes sirloin, tenderloin, rib eye steak or other top quality cuts. Many Koreans love nicely marbled cuts of beef, and these cuts are called kkotdeungsim (꽃등심). These cuts often have “kkot” (꽃) in the name, which means “flower.” It refers to the beautiful way the fat marbles into the meat, like a fully bloomed  flower. The most expensive cut of beef is Han-u (한우) which is only available in Korea and even hard to find there. Whenever I visit Korea, I get some Han-u and and have my own BBQ at home. I buy it from a trusted place and make sure it comes with a serial number and bar code that’s traceable back to the farmer that raised the cow.

korean bbq

Non-marinated cuts of pork include samgyeopsal (삼겹살, layered pork belly cut into thin strips) or dwaeji-moksal (pork shoulder). Pork belly strips made up of 3 to 5 layers of alternating meat and fat look gorgeous on a platter and samgyeopsal is one of the most popular cuts to order. If you order dwaeji-moksal, your server will put a few chunks of pork, about 5 inches wide and a half inch thick, on the grill. After they’re cooked, your server will bring some scissors to the table and cut the meat into bite size pieces for you.

Non-marinated cuts on the menu will often have “saeng” (생) in their name, which literally means “raw,” but in the case of meat it means non-marinated.

samgyeopsal (pork belly)

Samgyeopsal (layered pork belly)

Beyond a few names like bulgogi and galbi, many restaurants have their own names and descriptions for the different kinds of meats they offer, so it won’t always be the same from restaurant to restaurant. Prices on the menu are per serving, so order one serving per person at the table. Some people like to get some pork and some beef in one meal to get a variety of meat, and if you do that, your server will change the grill between switching the meat. I personally prefer to get one or the other, but it’s up to you.

Besides meat they’ll usually have some small-plate items on the menu, too. You can order some of these if you want, but most Koreans will order meat and & booze up front and then one of those later.

Ordering alcohol

sojuThere’s only one drink for me when I have barbecue: soju. It’s a clear, slightly sweet, Korean alcoholic beverage made with potato or tapioca starch, although traditionally it was made with rice. At 20% ABV it’s stronger than beer, but not as strong as other hard liquors. You drink it in a shotglass. You can order beer, makgeolli, or any Korean herbal booze on the menu, too. Another popular booze, called somaek, is like a cocktail mixed with soju and beer. If you are a non-drinker, you can order pop soda or just request a glass of water, that’s fine.

In Korean culture, respecting elders is very important, and there are a few little complicated rules when drinking with people older than you. Their glass must be filled first, and they should never pour it themselves. A younger person should always pour for them, one hand on the bottle, and the other hand supporting the pouring arm or on the bottle as well.

No one pours their own drink unless you’re drinking at home alone. : )

Once you pour a drink for an older person, put the bottle down and they will pour for you. Because they are older than you, they will pour with one hand, but you should hold your glass with two.

The older person should always drink first, and as a sign of respect the younger person should turn away slightly when they drink their soju, and never look directly at their elders when they sip. Don’t be shy! Let them pour your next drink, it means they respect you, too.

Cooking the meat

After you order meat, your server will start up the grill. Depending on the restaurant, they’ll usually take responsibility for the cooking and stop in now and then to turn over the meat so it’s cooked evenly. Tongs are next to the grill, so you might need to do it yourself if they’re busy, so keep an eye on it so the meat doesn’t burn.

samgyeopsalgui

They’ll also bring out some side dishes and any alcohol you ordered, and now everyone at the table can relax and talk, and drink around the grill as the meat cooks. Korean BBQ is really social and fun. The way you cook and eat naturally stimulates conversation and creates a good time. A big part of going to the restaurant is to have fun with your friends and family.

Side dishes

Great Korean BBQ restaurants serve great meat, but also have great side dishes too.

These can include at least one kind of kimchi, a green onion salad (pajeori: 파절이), pickled sliced onion, or a radish pickle. Most Korean BBQ restaurants serve bean paste stew for free of charge (but not always). If the restaurant is more generous, you will get an even wider variety of side dishes including cubed radish kimchi, mashed potato salad, braised beans, stir-fried fish cakes, steamed eggs, mung bean jelly, spinach, and soy bean sprouts. I love to see many side dishes on the table!

Because no rice is served at this point, most of the side dishes are not so salty, and you can munch on them while the meat cooks. If one side dish runs out and you want more, they will refill it, or you can ask for some more, no problem.pajeori (green onion salad)

Green onion salad (pajeori)

Ready to eat

When the meat is cooked, your server will tell you that it’s ready to eat and you can dig in. They will usually put the cooked meat on a little plate near you, or at least move it to the edge of the grill, to a spot that’s less hot.

They’ll give you some dipping sauces, too. Both pork and beef usually come with ssamjang (쌈장), is a mix of doenjang and gochujang, and they usually give you a dip made of sesame oil and salt mixed in a shallow bowl.

ssamjang-bowl

I think the best way to eat Korean BBQ is in the traditional Korean ssam (쌈) style. Ssam means “wrap,” and is when you wrap small amounts of ingredients in a larger ingredient to create a single delicious morsel. These wraps are made one by one on the spot by the diner, to be eaten in one bite.

bbq-wrapssam (bbq wrap)

Traditional Korean restaurants will usually provide a basket of lettuce for this, sometimes even a few types of lettuce. To eat Korean BBQ in the ssam style, first put a leaf of lettuce in your palm. Add a piece of meat to it (dipped in the sesame oil dip if available), and then add a dollop of ssamjang, some pajeori (shredded green onion salad), maybe a sliver of garlic and a piece of chopped green chili pepper. Wrap it up into a packet and pop it into your mouth. Make it small enough so it will fit in one shot!

Your next wrap, do it all over again. You can change it up and add more or less of whatever you want. Use a few different kinds of lettuce in one wrap, leave out the garlic, add more ssamjang, whatever you feel like.

Some modern Korean restaurants will forgo the lettuce altogether. They want you to eat the meat with a bit of dip or some of the other vegetables they provide. Or they provide thin radish slices in a sweet sour marinade. It takes some fine chopsticks work but you should wrap your meat in a slice of radish, ssam style, and eat it that way.

Stews and rice

When the BBQ is just about done, Koreans traditionally order a bowl of rice for each person if it’s not complementary with the meal. These days they usually split a bowl of rice each, though. You might be too full to eat a full bowl of rice, and not in the mood for stew. That’s ok, you don’t have to order it. But for Koreans, the focus of every meal is rice and stew (or soup), with side dishes. So even though you are in a “BBQ restaurant,” for Koreans the BBQ is just an accompaniment to rice. The rice is the meal!

These days some people order naengmyeon (냉면) to share at the end of the meal, instead of rice. They like the cool, icy noodles after the hot, greasy BBQ. Give it a try!

Korean BBQ at home

Eating Korean BBQ at home is pretty similar to eating at a restaurant, with a few important differences. The biggest difference is that we usually serve it in a more traditional Korean way with everything on the table at the same time: the side dishes, the meat, the rice, the stew, everything all at once, instead of courses.

No one has a table at home with a built-in grill, we use tabletop butane gas burners with a grill plate on the table. Some people use an electric grill. Everyone usually takes part in cooking the meat, unless there is someone who takes charge! They can use their chopsticks if there’s no tongs available.

Going out for Korean BBQ is a lot of fun, but doing it at home is also fun. It’s also a lot cheaper and you can use the best ingredients and serve it how you like.

However you enjoy Korean BBQ, in a restaurant or at home, I hope you find this guide useful. Of course the most important thing of all is to have fun and enjoy the food with friends and family!

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12 Comments:

  1. meagls Washington DC joined 8/19 & has 1 comment

    Hello, love your site! I have been trying to find the name of a side dish. We had it at New Wonjo, in NY. It was served as a side dish, and we used it as a wrap, like lettuce, for bites. It was a soft like dumpling wrap? Any idea what it could be? I know you have to cook usual dumpling wraps before you eat them, but this one was ready to eat. These were neatly stacked, square, and smaller than most dumpling wrappers, and they were so delicious. Thanks for the help!

  2. carrayville Placerville, CA joined 12/18 & has 5 comments

    Thanks for this post, it was very tasty

  3. INOCKLUCYRHEE LA joined 12/18 & has 2 comments

    IDEA:

    DELICIOUS. BASIL LEAVES IN SSAM.

  4. Rain026 Philippines joined 7/18 & has 2 comments

    Hi Maangchi!!! I love korean bbq. I eat it in restaurants and we tried it at home, it was better. Lettuces are actually expensive here in my location. I can’t even find perila leaves. I was wondering, can I also Napa Cabbage as a wrap or what other leafy vegetables can I use as a wrap? I asked about napa cabbage as it’s always available here. I hope you could help me out. More power Maangchi. I love you! ^_^

    • sanne Munich joined 8/14 & has 203 comments

      You may use anything edible including leaves from edible squash, zucchini, whatever; leaves from nasturtium, napa cabbage – of course!

      Bye, Sanne.

  5. Tyson24 california joined 6/18 & has 1 comment

    Nice post.

  6. JustinRunyon Louisburg joined 5/18 & has 3 comments

    I tried one time and must to say I LOVE it very much!

  7. Elis Riet Braz da Costa Sao Paulo Brazil joined 3/17 & has 1 comment

    I love you Maangchi!!!
    Korean BBQ is very delicious!

  8. sanne Munich joined 8/14 & has 203 comments

    Hi Maangchi,
    I see! Just checking my Korean (and I do mean Hangul ;-)) basic (covering everything) cooking-book I’ve learned that the Korean cut 어깨살 (shoulder) describes both shoulder and neck. So, 목살 is the modern word for them!
    Still: Do you mean the actual shoulder (which is comparatively dry) or the middle of that cut (the part between loin [cutlet] and head), which is marbled but less fatty than the belly?
    Cuts differ gravely from country to country, let alone continents! ;-D

    Bye, Sanne.

  9. sanne Munich joined 8/14 & has 203 comments

    Hi Maangchi,

    Nice article! For me, a trip on Memory Lane at the moment … ;-)
    You surely don’t mind a minor correction though?
    목 살 (moksal) does not translate as meat from the pork-shoulder (which isn’t ideal for bbq imo), but from pork-neck (I love that!).
    And there’s a small typo, but the link is correct: “naegmyeon” instead of “naengmyeon”. I just mention that because it sounds so funny … ;-D

    Bye, Sanne.

    • Maangchi New York City joined 8/08 & has 11,757 comments

      Yes, I understand what you mean, sanne.
      Mok (목) means “neck” in Korean but Koreans call pork shoulder cuts “moksal”. Some people prefer cut of pork shoulder butt (dwaeji-moksal) to pork belly (samgyeopsal) because it’s less fatty but marbled.
      And I fixed the typo, thanks!

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